This being Black History Month, it’s apt to begin with the words of Malcolm X:
“We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
Over 200 food service workers at York University are doing precisely this: declaring their right to be full human beings in this society, here and now. For their audacity, they find themselves up against Aramark, a giant, scandal-plagued multinational corporation, and a feckless university administration that proclaims social justice while letting toil and abuse fester in its midst.
The immediate issue, as many are now aware, is a contract dispute between the workers, represented by Unite Here Local 75, and their direct employer Aramark. York University, by outsourcing all campus food operations to Aramark, has the obvious and direct power to intervene in the situation, but so far has refused even to comment.
This is all the more galling considering what’s at stake. Most Aramark workers, diminutively classified as “general help,” make $12.21 per hour, or roughly $1,800 a month before taxes. At this rate, full-time employees fall roughly 6% below the Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) measure for Toronto. In exchange for giving 40 hours of their lives each week in service to the York community, these workers earn the distinct privilege of living in poverty.
Besides low pay, workers are routinely denied sick leave. While a simple doctor’s note would suffice at most unionized workplaces to get a paid day off, Aramark has reserved the right to require workers to submit, as proof of illness, much more elaborate “medical certificates” costing anywhere from $70-$90. At $12.21/hr, however, most workers simply can’t afford these certificates, so they often either come into work ill or stay home and lose a day’s pay.
Finally, workers of colour are speaking out against persistent racist treatment by Aramark managers. Stories have surfaced of Muslim workers being denied promotions because they’re Muslim, and of management expressing reluctance to hire more Black workers in the Central Square cafeteria. Racist epithets, insults and mockery have, moreover, become routine parts of working life, feeding into a culture of contempt that one worker describes as a form of second-class citizenship.
Against the weight of these indignities, the workers have stood tall, supported one another, and issued the following demands:
- An immediate raise to $15.00/hr, and a living wage by the end of the contract;
- Benefits for illness and short- and long-term disability;
- An end to racist discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Ever the corporation, Aramark has ignored the latter two demands outright and focused solely on the wage question. Its counter-offer has the ring of a bad joke: a 40-cent raise upon signing, followed by average increases of 31 cents every six months. Under this bold vision, most workers would earn $14.48 by September 2019, which could, depending on economic factors, leave them even worse off than they are now.
What Aramark is seeking to achieve, in other words, is the preservation of what already exists. No properly paid sick days, no reckoning with racism, and wage increases carefully calibrated to keep workers in poverty for the next three years. This coming from a company that posted a profit of $83.3 million in the last quarter, and whose CEO took home over $17 million in total compensation in 2016.
By offering pennies, Aramark is making an open mockery of the collective bargaining process. And yet, remarkably, not even a whisper of reproach can be heard from York’s administration. Free from any external pressure to negotiate, the company is instead hedging its bets on a workforce that it thinks will succumb to division, demoralization and fear.
As it turns out, Aramark picked the wrong workers to bet against. Back in December 2016, after being without a contract for three months, Local 75 held a strike vote that returned a 100% strike mandate from its membership – the clearest possible expression of worker unity.
Then, with Aramark still refusing to bargain, the union executed a powerful one-day strike on February 2, with overwhelming support from faculty, staff and student allies. The strike, which Aramark had initially planned to undermine using scab labour, resulted in the frantic, last-minute closure of all Aramark food outlets on campus.
In the face of an increasingly self-confident and determined workforce, Aramark got desperate. On February 3, a day after the strike, the company couriered personalized letters, signed by Aramark’s Director of Human Resources, directly to the homes of workers. The letters opened with words of concern for “you and your family’s well-being,” before lamenting, without irony, “the financial impact that a strike can have upon our employees.” Workers were then urged to accept Aramark’s “reasonable offer of settlement” because, apparently, “in strike situations nobody wins.”
These sound like the words of a faltering employer, one no longer confident in its ability to dictate the course of events. But, crucially, it is an employer still too arrogant to face its employees at the bargaining table.
And so the workers have pressed forward. Emboldened by Aramark’s botched strike-breaking manoeuvre, and inspired by the power of its own organizing, Local 75 is upping the ante. On February 16, food workers will be going back on strike, with scores of campus allies standing firmly by their side.
If ever there was a strike to win at York University, this is it.
To show your support go to York15.ca.